Visitors to Daniel Licht’s home studio who are unfamiliar with his resume might assume he leads a double life — composer and serial killer. But they needn’t fear. The bone scrapers, scalpels and viscera bucket are instruments, as much as the nearby cello, upright piano and Irish harp. Licht writes the music for the Showtime showcase series “Dexter,” and his compositions reflect the show’s macabre nature.
Licht takes a novel approach to getting inside the head of show’s main character, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a blood-spatter expert for the Miami Police Dept. who ritually murders serial killers who have somehow eluded justice.
“I set the tone after looking at the very first footage of ‘Dexter,’?” says the composer, dressed in a worn maroon T-shirt, jeans and sneakers as he shows a visitor around his home studio. “The scene was Dexter driving through Miami at night, and I used this haunting piano and wine-glass melody mixed with hand drums. That set the mood. So it was this mysterious quality surrounding Dexter set against his primal instincts. I don’t know if it was the shot or what, but that set up a good sound right away. ”
Though unconventional, it was apparently the right fit for the material, and Licht continued in that vein. “I pitched it somewhat gothic-sounding but instrumental — more like what people are used to hearing in comedy,” he says. “I call it light macabre. I’m using scraping sounds — you hear that in comedy a lot. The producers liked what I did, and it became, ‘Do more of that.’?”
Among Licht’s challenges has been writing music that can work on multiple dramatic levels.
“Some of the most difficult scenes are when very complicated things are happening,” he says, “because Dexter may be posing as someone else. So I might be writing music for the underlying emotion of the scene while he’s showing a different emotion in that scene. Like when he’s talking to his sister, Deb — that’s a good example. Dexter has his own narrative going on, so sometimes I have to score the scene and his personal narrative at the same time, which makes things complex.”
Licht, a largely self-taught musician, has a particular interest in world music, and he uses an array of non-Western instruments, including Balinese gamelans, on the series.
“For my vacations, I find music shops in exotic places and start playing the instruments,” he says. “Eventually, the shop owner will come over and show me how to properly play whatever it is, and then he usually ends up inviting me to dinner.”
Some viewers may wonder if Licht’s interest in the exotic accounts for the haunting quality of “Dexter’s” main theme, but the show’s title music is actually the work of Rolfe Kent — his theme’s distinctive sound that of the bouzouki, a classic Greek instrument similar to a lute or mandolin, which Licht also employs.
“I’m friends with Rolfe,” Licht says. “But we don’t work together. The theme was set before I was on the show. Yet there is compatibility, because we have similar styles. Generally, I don’t riff off the theme; it’s supposed to be a separate piece.”
Licht’s most immediately recognizable music for the series is probably the “Blood Theme,” a slow-creeping melody with counterpoint coming from artificial harmonics produced on a violin or viola. Though it is used variously in most episodes, it always figures in the end credits.
For the upcoming season, Licht is expanding his sonic options, as is suggested by the presence of those coroner’s implements. “I’m using surgical instruments this season,” he says, demonstrating an array of sounds using chains, scissors, bone scrapers, surgical pans and even poison bottles. “It’s almost like Foley.”
Licht is reluctant to refer to his work on “Dexter” as his big break.
“It’s certainly one of my more visible projects,” says the composer, whose early efforts included two “Children of the Corn” pics as well as “Hellraiser IV.” “I’ve had a series of small breaks leading up to this medium-size break. It’s been great and given me a little bit of ‘note’ recognition.”
And though he doesn’t hide from his connection to grisly fare, Licht, like most creative types, would rather not be pigeonholed.
“I don’t just do creepy music,” he says. “But with creepy, there’s more opportunity for interesting sounds.”